Prayers are not enough; in widely scattered parts of Australia, Africa, and Texas, there is no end in sight to the absence of water. To ensure our basic needs for consumption, hygiene, and food production, each of the 7 billion people on Earth need 20-50 liters of clean water each day. Drought is measured in increasingly tough language, ranging from abnormally dry, moderate, severe, extreme, to exceptional. By 2030, 47% of the population of the world will live in areas of high water stress.
We think of water as an infinite and inexhaustible resource, but as increasing water consumption exceeds the planet’s capacity to renew itself, we are headed toward a destabilized future. In the past 50 years, there have been 1831 water-related interactions between nations. The wars of the future will focus on water.
Architecture can reduce the demand for non-industrial, non-agricultural use of fresh water by resource recovery and reuse, and rainwater harvesting at the project scale. Places with moderate rainfall, such as Tamil Nadu in India, have made rainwater harvesting mandatory for new public and private buildings. Germany imposes a rain tax on impervious surfaces leading to storm sewers, to prevent mingling fresh and foul waters, and requiring treatment. The fear of insufficient supplies creates a ripple of patchwork solutions across ecosystems. City-scale infrastructure can create adequate storage to reduce the short-term uncertainty, but only wise planning across boundaries can manage the long-term reality of insufficient supply.
There are places on the earth where there has been no significant rainfall for 401 years. From 1570 to 1971, there were measurable rainfalls of less than 1 mm per year in the Atacama Desert of Chile, and geologists estimate that the riverbeds have been dry for 120,000 years. (Even Death Valley in California’s Mojave Desert, well-known for harsh conditions, receives 60 mm per year of precipitation.) How and why do people build in such extremes?
Inhabitation follows resources, and deserts often harbour critical minerals: bauxite, gypsum, and silver. The Atacama had deposits of sodium nitrite and copper in quantities that brought mining companies in 1872 to build towns and bring in water, fuel, and food. Prior to that, only a few missionaries and farmers huddled at the oases where springs and geysers from deep sources came to surface. The Andean civilization and the tribes that followed built with rock and mud, with thick walls and thatched coverings, flat on grade with small openings. The Spanish missionaries who built San Pedro de Atacama in 1577 followed their lead.
In arid conditions, walls may be built of anything, even the local salt blocks. It is not as if they might dissolve. Doors can be made of the lightweight wood of a cactus, and walls made of timber from far-away forests last a very long time. Wood will not rot in the dry air.
The mining town at Humberton built the thick mud-brick walls in serried ranks, the identical white walls covered with corrugated steel. They built a cast-iron swimming pool from a shipwreck at the coast town of Iquique, now rusting and waterless. They built a theatre of wood, scoured and polished by winds but still intact, and very possibly improved. The mining companies trucked infusions of water and entertainment together over the coastal mountains, to over 170 towns in the heyday. By the 1940’s the towns had dried up due to synthetic sources of sodium nitrite, market speculation, and fluent deposits of ore in more hospitable places.
Today, the region thrives for two reasons: the science of astronomy, and the curiosity of eco-tourists. The dehumidified climate, high elevation, and distance from major cities create ideal conditions for telescopes. The Atacama Large Millimeter Array is a collection of 66 radio telescopes, trained on star birth in the early universe. Along with the Very Large Telescope scientists, casual visitors come to experience the extreme desiccation, to try sandboarding, to explore the Andean legacies of basket-weaving, pottery, archaeological foundations, and petroglyphs. They delve into hot springs and view geysers, go climbing and trekking, and enjoy the Mars-like views of this, the driest place on Earth.
The new tourists stay in luxe architectural retreats consciously designed in the vernacular style. At the Explora and Remota Hotels, Puritama Hot Springs, and Hotel Salto Chico, among others, Chilean architect German del Sol works within the pre-Colombian traditions, creating layered and multiple relationships between the building and nature to establish their aesthetic grounds. Raised boardwalks traverse tender and rare riverside grasses; on rockier slopes, the hotels are built with slight elevation to float above the desert floor and adopt a modified viewpoint. Light washes the white ceilings and walls, sometimes through slats of wood ceilings like the pickets of cactus fences crossing dusty fields. The extended roofs define the outdoor circulation and recall the galerias of Colonial towns. Adobe brick is stacked to create texture and shadows, albeit muted with white paint to reflect sunlight and heat. Del Sol designs with the geometries of the mountain pass and steep slope, using their changing levels as an opportunity to connect with a different aspect of the view, each a separate access to the stark adjacency.
Remote locations within the Patagonian peninsula determine the rules for construction, reducing excess fixtures and unnecessary finishes, using locally available materials to make the masonry walls, and finding expedient ways to transport uncommon materials such as steel and timber. If there were more ruins, these might become opportune targets for salvage.
Even in such inhospitable places we are not first. Other people have determined ways to build, find food and water; it is ungracious not to acknowledge these precedents. We want to experience the extremes, but from the comfort of a climate-controlled hotel room. We have more resources now, innumerable options for vacations, so we spend them searching for the authentic places, the iconic views, and the gasp-inducingly beautiful landscapes. The arid and mountainous regions offer these, but they come at a price: all life-giving sustenance requires transport to these distant locales. When the mining companies extracted enough to profit on the work of the miners, they willingly trucked in food for the commissaries, movies for the theatres, and millions of gallons of water for the thirsty workers and machines. When prices for their products fell the towns were abandoned. Someday, these luxurious structures in the desert will be abandoned, only to be marveled over and reclaimed by the people of future societies. What will they think of the indoor wet environments, glass-roofed atriums, and crystal chandeliers of these lifeboats stranded far from the ocean?